By Charlene Obernauer
May 16, 2018
National Employment Law Project (NELP) is being honored at NYCOSH’s 2018 Gala for its tremendous contributions to the workers’ rights movement, but in particular, for their advocacy and research in relation to occupational safety and health. This project has been led by NELP’s Worker Health and Safety Program Director Debbie Berkowitz. NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer interviewed Ms. Berkowitz to showcase her work and NELP’s leadership in the movement.
Ms. Berkowitz came to NELP to build the organization’s portfolio of work and to strengthen workplace health and safety protections, especially for low wage workers in high hazard industries, who are disproportionately people of color and immigrant workers.
When Ms. Berkowitz first started, her vision was, “To move the needle forward on improving workplace safety, putting pressures on the Obama Administration […] as well as work with allies and partners around the country to promote stronger local and statewide ordinances to offer greater protections.”
After the election of President Trump, her work changed.
“Now, a good portion of my work is preventing rollbacks on workplace safety protections,” she said, “I would say that almost 70% of my work I call ‘the fight back,’ which is to prevent rollbacks. I’d say a third of my time is still trying to move the needle with allies on the ground that are working hard in states and cities to increase protections while Washington is trying to decrease protections.”
After the election of President Trump, Berkowitz notes that the Administration worked with Congress to immediately move to overturn “every protection that they legally could” under the Congressional Review Act. NELP led battles to prevent both the rollback of the Executive Order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces and the OSHA regulation requiring that employers maintain ‘accurate’ injury records ; was successful working with allies to prevent Congress from adding any riders on appropriations bills that would prevent enforcement of OSHA’s new silica standard; submitted extensive comments opposing the unprecedented weakening of OSHA protections for construction and maritime workers from the highly toxic beryllium; fought to continue the Harwood grant funding; and exposed that OSHA failed to hire any inspectors during the first year of the Trump Administration which reduced the total number of inspectors to the lowest level in 9 years.
“We also need to focus on the roll back on protections from toxic chemicals ” she continued. “New chemicals are entering into the workplace each year that have no safe limits and can expose workers to unsuspecting toxins. With the change in Administration, we won’t see any forward movement to develop and promulgate new protective worker health regulations.”
“When OSHA rolls back enforcement, when protections are rolled back, when the number of inspections declines — the impact worker safety is palpable. We fear that work related injuries and fatalities will rise.”
“There’s been a lot of progress on protecting workers since 1971 when OSHA opened its doors. The number of workplace fatalities and serious injuries are down by over 65%, with a workforce that is currently twice as large. But despite this 47-year-old law, which requires employers to provide safe workplaces, 14 workers are still killed every day on the job, with over 5,000 worker fatalities last year,” Berkowitz stated. There is clearly still a lot of work that needs to be done to improve safety on the job and we cannot afford to roll back protections.
Berkowitz is an expert on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as she served as senior policy adviser for the agency from 2013-2016 after previously serving as OSHA’s chief of staff from 2009 to 2013.
“Once OSHA’s staff is cut back, there will be less enforcement,” she warned. “There is no private right of action, so OSHA is all there is to stand between a worker and an employer who violates their rights.”
In addition to OSHA cuts, workers also worry about the state of workers’ compensation in New York and across the country. NELP is working with allies and partners all over the country to fight back against the weakening of workers’ comp statutes.
Berkowitz, a seasoned veteran of the labor and occupational safety and health movement, has been leading NELP’s efforts to prevent cutbacks to workers’ compensation and to advocate for a system that works for injured workers.
“Workers compensation is almost a century-old state run system that was intended to be a no-fault system where if a worker got injured on the job, the employer would buy insurance to cover lost wages and medical benefits. In exchange, workers gave up their right to sue their employer. However, unlike all other social insurance programs, with worker’s compensations there are no federal minimum standards, and each state is free to write their own laws and allowed benefits. As a result, over the past two decades, workers’ compensation systems have been in a race to the bottom in benefits, and in most states, workers’ compensation no longer really work for workers,” Berkowitz explained.
“Employers have really gone overboard to weaken the laws, to the point where in Florida and Alabama, state courts have founds that the benefits provided by the workers’ compensation law is so low, that it’s unconstitutional,” she continued.
Berkowitz’s passion for the work is obvious. She cites, without a moment’s hesitation, any number of occupational safety and health laws and regulations and will emphatically emphasis how they can be improved. Advocacy has been a core part of Berkowitz’s life for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up at a time with Civil Rights and antiwar protests all around me in middle and high school, as well as the birth of the environmental movement ( I marched in the parade for the first Earth Day in NYC), and all that informed who I was and how I viewed the world. I sort of understood that to make a just and better world, you had to participate, and decided early on that I definitely wanted to be an advocate for economic justice,” she said.
Berkowitz’s first job out of college was working for a firm that did environmental impact statements for the government that were required under the National Environmental Policy Act, where she was assigned to research the occupational safety and health section. She quickly decided that she wanted to work in advocacy in this area, and said she “was more than lucky, that two years out of college, I got a new job to conduct workplace safety and health education for union workers in the food industry at the AFL-CIO.” She later became the Health and Safety Director of the Food and Allied Services Trades Department at the AFL-CIO and then the Health and Safety Director at the United Food and Commercial Workers union. “I had found my life’s work” she said.
“I’ve been through a lot of Administrations,” she reflected. “I was really lucky to start my work in this field during the Administration of Jimmy Carter, with OSHA Head Eula Bingham. They started the New Directions grants, and they realized they were a small agency and needed to educate workers and employers about the law. That’s still how I think about my career – we’re educating workers, employers, the public, and policy makers. We are building worker power to advocate for safer workplaces—so no one has to sacrifice their life or health for a paycheck. ”
Berkowitz was instrumental in OSHA’s passage of a regulation to prevent grain elevator explosions, in EPA rules to ban dangerous pesticides on grain, in OSHA’s work on ergonomics, and in achieving stepped up OSHA enforcement activities in the meatpacking and poultry industries.
When asked about if she had advice for people newer to occupational safety and health who are discouraged by current attacks on workers, Berkowitz was optimistic.
“One thing I did learn that supports my work today is that there have been dark times in this struggle to improve worker safety. The whole fight to improve worker power, worker justice, and worker safety can seem daunting –the opposition is real and it is big. But you need to keep your head on, and really just have to keep moving forward as best as you can,” she said.
“Remember to take care of yourself and don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Know that things will get better. There have been times early in my career where I got very discouraged, but what was very important then, and now, is to learn to rely on the support of the community of people that you’re moving forward with, and be sure to support one another, because this work is not easy.”
Berkowitz paused for a moment, reflecting.
“I think this time, in so many ways, is darker than so many periods in my life that I remember. You have a very strong sense that America is going backwards in terms of economic and racial justice issues […] It’s a very dark time and we have to fight that much harder to end structural racism in every way, including in our own lives, in everything we do,” Berkowitz said.
She spoke like a woman of wisdom, who had seen this struggle before, had seen the country’s divisive history unfold in the past, but who would not be discouraged.
“The thing about workplace safety and health issues, is it doesn’t get the same kind of media attention as environmental issues, like climate change. Foundations who fund worker rights work are also very focused on wage theft issues and economic inequality, and maybe not on improving safety and health protections as much as they could be,” Berkowitz said.
She spoke to a real concern among workers’ health and safety advocates: that the work happens in a bubble and isn’t seen as a part of the larger struggle for workers’ rights. NELP’s work, and the work that Berkowitz has led for years throughout her career, is a part of making this work visible, as a part of a larger struggle for economic justice and human rights.